America’s clapped out constitution (America Week)

The Wright Brother's plane. Like the US constitution it's a miracle of invention, you'd be made to use in the present day.

The Wright Brother’s plane. Like the US constitution it’s a miracle of invention, you’d be mad to use it in the present day.

In America’s civil religion, the constitution is the sacred text and the Founding Father’s are the prophets. They even have temples like Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Both the document and its authors are held up as paragons and models with huge rhetorical power.

Yet when a nation’s constitution prevents the rubbish in its capital city being collected, that constitution is clearly broken. The sheer absurdity of what is happening in America at the moment is staggering: the government of the most powerful nation on earth has voted to spend more than it raises in taxes and now has to (but can’t) separately vote to borrow the money to plug the gap. This Washington Post article observes “countries like Pakistan and Colombia have had civil wars, coups, financial crises, even defaults but never a government shutdown.” In fact a Commonwealth guidance note on debt management for its developing members warns them that legislative involvement in specific lending decisions “adds a potentially cumbersome, time-consuming and overpoliticised step in the decision-making process when time is often of the essence for market borrowing” and that ideally “an annual borrowing limit is set consistently with the financing requirement implied by the annual budget.” The way the US handles its debt thus falls far short of what would be expected of any nation let alone a superpower.

The reality is that debt management is far from being the only area where the US constitution is antiquated. What makes the US constitution so remarkable is that is that it is the first example of creating a supreme law for a democratic nation. However, this is the source of its weakness in the present day. You are not getting to get things right on a first attempt and since the constitution was written in 1787, we have learnt a lot more about how to govern a country.

While prototypes in other fields are likely to be replaced or substantially improved, the constitution is entrenched and extraordinary hurdles must be cleared before it can be amended. So it remains riddled with problems that later constitutions have at least to certain extent solved such as:

  • It protects the wrong rights. The hallowed Bill of Rights is a strange document to 21st century eyes and not just because of the right to bear arms. It includes a right not to have soldiers garrisoned in your house but – unlike the ECHR – no protections for the right to marry, to receive an education or live free from discrimination. Many individual decisions are also dodgy, for example, the Citizens United decision that concluded that preventing unlimited corporate spending on advertising during elections was a breach of freedom of speech!
  • A lack of legislative accountability. It is often unclear to voters what branch of government is responsible for what outcome. So for example, the Democrats were punished in the 2010 mid-terms for Barack Obama’s percieved failure to get the economy moving even though it was Republicans in congress who shrunk his stimulus bill.
  • It politicises the judiciary by the combining an expansive role of the Supreme Court with requiring congressional approval for judicial appointments.
  • It’s undemocratic. Wyoming (population: 500,000) and California (population: 38,000,000) have the same representation in the US Senate.
  •  It’s a vested interests dream. You get loads of opportunities to block measures you don’t like. Take the healthcare industries effort to block Obamacare: it had to be voted through by the house, get a supermajority in the Senate, not be vetoed by the president, survive a challenge at the Supreme Court and Republican controlled states have dragged their feet on implementing it.
  • It makes solving social problems harder to solve. This is related to the point above. Because there are so many ‘veto points’ in the American political system that means it is hard to assemble a political coalition behind policies that might solve problems: universal healthcare is the obvious answer. In fact, much social science research has suggested that the more veto points in a nation’s constitution, the higher its poverty rate will be.
  • Inability to resolve impasses democratically. A constitution heavy in veto points assumes that it is possible to default back to the status quo. This isn’t always possible and then a dangerous impasse can result. The most tragic example in US history is the Civil War: slavery had to be either permitted or not in states acceding to the union, there was no status quo to default back to. The Northern dominated House and Southern dominated Senate couldn’t agree on this matter, and so the two sides resolved the matter on the battle field. In general, it seems that democracy fairs better in parliamentary systems because they avoid this kind of impasse.

To move on from this Model-T constitution,  the constitution should be made easier to change, so that it can evolve. Furthermore, the constitution should stop being used as a normative standard: the fact its in the constitution doesn’t stop the right to bear arms being a stupid idea.

How Air Con gave America the Golden Age of Holywood, the IT industry and the Sun Belt (America Week)

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Most of the United States is unpleasantly hot for at least part of the year. Much of it is unbearably so. The result is that one of the defining technologies of modern America is the air conditioning unit. As this article by in the Atlantic explains it has underpined some very fundamental changes in American life:

In the 1920s, innovations made air conditioning units smaller and safer (older versions had used a toxic coolant). During the Depression, few places could afford to install the systems, but one venue saw returns on such an investment: movie theaters. The air conditioning in theaters became an attraction in itself, and people flocked to them. Not coincidentally, what many consider Hollywood’s Golden Age began around the same time.

It was during the postwar period that air conditioning arrived en masse in American homes, with more than one million units sold in 1953. The machines were heavily promoted by two key industries. Air conditioning served the needs of homebuilders eager to build huge numbers of cheap houses and utilities were only too happy to keep ramping up electricity sales to the burgeoning suburbs. AC for cars became a status symbol, too, so much so that some people without it supposedly drove around with their windows up in 100 degree heat to give an impression otherwise. The suburban American dream was built on the sweat of air conditioners.

Many of the central changes in our society since World War II would not have been possible were air conditioning not keeping our homes and workplaces cool. Florida, Southern California, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and New Mexico all experienced above-average growth during the latter half of the 20th century — hard to imagine without air conditioning. In fact, the Sunbelt’s share of the nation’s populations exploded from 28 percent in 1950 to 40 percent in 2000. And hubs of business and technology in hot regions of the globe, such as Dubai, may never have taken off.

Computers throw off a lot of heat, too. The development of the entire IT industry might not have happened without cooling technologies first pioneered by air conditioning.

The advent of air conditioning has shaped our homes and family life as well. Houses are designed not for ventilation but for central cooling systems. Porches, where they exist, are relics of another age, and few new homes include them. Families gather inside, in the comfort of 72-degree living rooms, to watch TV. Would television have even gained its central place in American family life, were the rooms from which we watch it not so enjoyably cool?

Another article from the Atlantic claims that without air-conditioning Miami, Phoenix, Tampa, Orlando, Las Vega and San Antonio would be unlikely to exist in anything like their present form. They are all in extremely hot areas and prior to the advent of AC only a few thousand people were prepared to endure those temperatures. However, since then they experienced explosive growth that has raised their population to many times what it was before. None of them now has less than a million residents.

It seems that air conditioning can even be a matter of life and death.

In 2006, sociologists at Ohio State and Western Washington University teamed up with a professor and a doctoral student in health studies at the University of Chicago to analyze the infamous 1995 Chicago heat wave, which resulted in over 500 heat-related deaths over five days. Like other studies, this one found that lower-income neighborhoods saw higher mortality rates, but with an additional explanation. The authors noted that neighborhoods with “commercial decline” (broadly speaking, a less vibrant business community) were even more closely correlated with high mortality rates. (Other factors often linked to low-income neighborhoods–higher crime rates, for example–did not correlate as strongly with the mortality rates.) Because many victims of the heat were elderly, the writers suggested that, in neighborhoods with more businesses, elderly suffering from the heat were more likely to leave their apartment and go into a nearby business and use their central air to cool off. Without such stores, they were more likely to stay in their apartments and suffer from the heat.

The Numerous but Invisible Asian Americans (America week)

A google image search for 'Asian American' helpfully illustrates the stereotype

A google image search for ‘Asian American’ helpfully illustrates the stereotype

My arrival in the US for my summer holiday, coincided with acquittal of George Zimmerman for the racially inflected murder of Trayvon Martin. The shooting happened in Sandford, Florida but even 2000km away in Boston it was inescapable. It dominated every bulletin on every telly we saw, there were numerous small about it and the omnipresent newspaper of the Nation of Islam – think Socialist Worker – was emblazoned  with lurid headlines about the murder. If I’d needed a reminder that race is still a big issue in America, here it was. And of course I didn’t: the British media’s coverage of the US is as focused on race as the American TV shows I devour, and I am a product of a school system that teaches its pupils about Martin Luther King but not Martin Luther.  However, the dialogue about race both within the US and about it, focuses on a handful of themes: the battle for black civil rights, the continuing cocktail of social problems African Americans face and the impact of mass immigration from Latin America. But traveling in the US made it abundantly clear that these narratives ignores a large group of Americans.

A spot of people watching in a big American city makes it clear that ethnic composition of the US is not just black and white (and hispanic). In particular, I was surprised at how many people of East Asian ancestry I came across. So I did what I usually do when something surprises me: I went and researched it on Wikipedia. From doing this I discovered that Asian-Americans* make up 5.8% of the population of the US. That means there is about 1 Asian-American for every 2.6 African Americans and every 3.4 Hispanics or Latinos. That I found this surprising is probably explained by the fact that despite being about an eighth of the US’s minority population, Asian-Americans receive much less than this proportion of the discussion about race.

They are of course not completely neglected – see for example the Tiger Mother controversy – but they are significantly underrepresented by virtually every part of the media.

This absence of Asian-Americans is particularly striking in one issue above all others: immigration. The discussion of this is topic seems to assume that migration to the US is primarily from Latin America. However, for several years now Asians have been the largest group of migrants to the US.

My suspicion is that the invisibility of Asian-Americans comes about because they are the ‘model minority.’ According to a survey conducted by Pew:

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success.

Because to the majority population they do not appear to the majority to a terrorist threat, particularly likely to commit crime or to be a burden on the tax payer, they don’t seem worth discussing. We should also not think this is just an American phenomenon: the British media doesn’t stop to dwell on the success of say the East African Asian, Chinese or Sikh communities.

This is a pernicious part of how race is talked about that is rarely considered. Ralph Ellison’s novel the Invisible Man centered on a black man rendered invisible by his low social status. By contrast, it seems Asian-Americans and other ‘model minorities’ successful status makes them politically invisible. This creates a pernicious situation whereby: minorities communities are either stereotyped negatively based on the behaviour of some of their members, and if this isn’t possible they are just ignored. These factors combine to produce an unbalanced and unrealistic debate.

*a term that encompasses people of Far Eastern, Southeast Asian, or Indian heritage.

Coming up on Matters of Facts – America Week

ImageI first conceived of this blog while traveling in the States this summer and I’d planned to start it off with a series of posts about the States. For various reasons that didn’t happen but its remained an appealing idea. So this week is America week which will hopefully include:

  • I’ve already done a couple of posts refuting the idea that America has no history
  • The problem with American food
  • Why the constitution is not all it’s cracked up to be
  • The unlikely Confederates
  • How cars and air conditioning changed America
  • Why Asian-Americans get ignored
  • The state that gives gun licences to blind people

Also look out for a post on why a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall the city is still divided, more on the differences between UKIP and the Greens, and a review of Blackfish.